By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A decades-old feud between a Philadelphia judge and the late actor Charlton Heston may have helped a Pennsylvania man get his 1998 murder conviction overturned on Tuesday.
A U.S. appeals court granted Paul McKernan's last-ditch appeal, ruling that the judge who found him guilty 19 years ago, Lisa Richette, may have felt pressure to dispel Heston's claim that she was soft on crime.
Heston, known for his starring roles in films like "The Ten Commandments," "Ben-Hur" and "Planet of the Apes," was also famous as the longtime president of the National Rifle Association. At the group's 1998 convention in Philadelphia, Heston called Richette, a local judge, "Let 'em Loose Lisa."
The convoluted case began when McKernan hit his roommate, Mark Gibson, with a baseball bat during a heated argument, killing him. McKernan claimed he struck Gibson in the chest in self defense, but prosecutors said he hit Gibson's head.
Richette heard the case without a jury. During the trial, she called the victim's family into her chambers along with the prosecutor and McKernan's defense lawyer, Fred Harrison.
"It is difficult to convey in excerpts the inappropriate nature of this lengthy conference," Judge Jane Roth of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia wrote for a three-judge panel.
Richette had discovered a blog written by the victim's parents that harshly criticized her and summarized the ongoing controversy between her and Heston.
Richette told the parents she wanted "to make sure that you folks are happy with me" and characterized the case as a "horrible, horrible murder," according to the appeals court.
Despite McKernan's concerns that Richette might be inclined to convict him of first-degree murder, rather than a lesser crime, to avoid the "Let 'em Loose Lisa" caricature, Harrison decided not to ask for a new judge.
That, the 3rd Circuit concluded, meant McKernan had received ineffective counsel, making his conviction invalid.
"Judge Richette's actions would have caused any competent attorney to seek recusal immediately," Roth concluded.
The Philadelphia district attorney's office has 60 days to decide whether to retry McKernan for murder. A spokesman for the office said the decision was being reviewed.
Harrison could not be reached for comment. Richette died in 2007.
McKernan's attorney, Maria Pulzetti, said, "We're very grateful that our arguments have been vindicated, and our client is quite relieved that the court recognizes that he did not have a fair trial."
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Leslie Adler)